USDOT Cautiously Proposes Relaxing Rules for Drones

January 18, 2019

In a speech at the Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting in Washington, Transportation Sec. Elaine Chao announced a proposed rule that would allow for small drone operators to fly over crowds and at night. The rule emphasizes feedback from stakeholders, and the usefulness of a performance-based approach, highlighting the incremental and engaged approach the Federal Aviation Administration is taking to create unmanned aircraft system (UAS) regulations..

Flying UAS at night is currently prohibited unless an operator obtains a federal waiver, which is the most common type of waiver request the Federal Aviation Administration receives. The new rule would allow flying at night so long as the remote operator has completed a training course and the UAS has a warning light that can be visible for a minimum of three miles.

Flying over people is also currently prohibited without a waiver. The new rule proposes to allow flights over people under three categories. The first, which applies to small drones under 0.55 pounds, would have no restrictions for flying over people. The second category would allow for UAS between 0.55 and 55 pounds to fly over people so long as the drone manufacturer can demonstrate a collision with a person would be under a certain force threshold (specified as 11 foot-pounds of force) and the UAS would not have exposed rotating parts that could cut skin. The third category allows for a greater collision force threshold (24 foot-pounds) but would require operational limitations that prohibit flying over large crowds and hovering.

The rule is explicit about its performance-based standards. Outcome-based standards, such as a certain level of impact force and protection against skin laceration allows manufacturers to design their UAS in any way that meets those standards rather than the FAA specifying how to design products. The document outlines possible ways to achieve these standards, such as limiting speed, improving materials, or protecting from moving parts, but does not lay out any specific standards except for the weight categories.

The FAA is also vocal about how this is only a proposed rule and they are seeking feedback from the stakeholder community. The document includes a “Draft” watermark, states that this is to provide information prior to release in the Federal Register, and that the coming posting will only be a proposed rulemaking, which involves an open comment period.

The proposed rule comes at a time with increasingly crowded skies and growing pressure to safely integrate UAS into the national airspace. UAS are no longer hobby drones or simply technological curiosities. Major firms like Amazon and UPS are developing commercial applications for package delivery. Boeing is developing cargo aircraft that might not need pilots. The defense industry is increasingly training unmanned aircraft in domestic civil airspace. Other private companies are increasingly engaged in commercial space exploration, which directly impacts the airspace. Meanwhile, London’s Gatwick and Heathrow airports have recently been shuttered due to potential drone sightings. A drone collided with an airliner in Mexico City.

The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that the number of commercial UAS could grow from 110,604 in 2017 to over 700,000 in 2022. At the same time, the number of “small” (under 55-pound) drones used for recreational purposes could double in the same five years, from 1.1 million to over 2.4 million. Each of these systems will have differing levels of human control; from automated systems that require pilots or remote-control backups to those flying completely autonomously.

Determining how these devices are integrated into the national airspace system (NAS) is a critical imperative facing the industry and the federal government. It will define how aviation advances in the coming decade and redefine the future of the FAA. While the recent 5-year FAA reauthorization addressed some of these issues, it mostly lays the groundwork for future rulemaking. This proposed rule is the first of many steps to come.

Search Eno Transportation Weekly

Latest Issues

Happening on the Hill